At the Ivy League Men’s Program I was privileged to experience true expression of love and concern for a fellow Jew. The faculty is comprised of strong, intelligent, and beautiful Jewish women who go above and beyond their job requirements to educate and nurture their students as mentors and role models. Learners come to Ivy League from a broad gamut of backgrounds and quickly form unique bonds while supporting one another through their spiritual journeys and challenges. After a year and a half I am still discovering the ways in which my experience at Ivy League impacts my growth in Torah. I whole-heartedly recommend the program to everyone; you will discover that your heritage is an invaluable treasure.
My name is Derek Kwait, I am from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and went to Ivy League the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, where I major in fiction writing, with minors in film studies and Jewish studies. When my campus rabbi suggested Ivy League to me, at first I wasn’t sure it would be right for me— I had never been in a formal Jewish learning environment besides Sunday and Hebrew school; I am not Chassidic, plus I would have to arrive late. But my rabbi put me in touch with a friend of mine who had gone, and talking with him convinced me.
When I arrived at Ivy League, I had practically no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know how many other guys would be there, how the food would be, who the teachers would be, or even if there would be air-conditioning. Plus, coming late, I didn’t even know if the guys would accept me. When I arrived, I put my stuff down in our bungalow —four rooms with three to a room, each with its own bathroom and air conditioner surrounding an enclosed common stoop with benches and a refrigerator stocked with ice pops and beer – it’s like they knew us. Then I went down to the main building and met the guys. I was expecting more, but to my pleasant surprise, there were only eight of them (there would end up being 10 of us total), from all over the country and all over the Jewish landscape.
After five weeks of living and learning together, of experiencing so much together 9 other guys aren’t my friends; they are my brothers. Then there were our counselors, two 24-year-old rabbis who were always with us, to answer our questions or just hang out. Being from such a different world from us, they should have seen us as helpless miscreants, and, indeed, we gave them every reason to. But they didn’t. They earned our respect by taking our commitment to Judaism seriously even when it might not have seemed like we were, while keeping up with our banter and being part of the guys.
Our rabbis were all a credit to their profession. Even when we didn’t see eye-to-eye, their erudition and down-to-earthiness earned our respect. My biggest worry coming into the program was that it would be five weeks of people trying to make me Chabad, but now I would say that on the whole, they weren’t trying to make us Chabad as much as they were trying to make us better, more learned Jews, who would be prepared to take their Judaism back to the outside world with them, know what they’re doing and why and not be ashamed of it, and in that they succeeded phenomenally.
Outside of class, we had two trips to New York City to see Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights, the Jewish Heritage Museum, the Ohel, and to hear women speakers on Jewish relationships; went on a rafting trip on the Delaware River; spent an unforgettable Shabbaton with two fantastic families in Monsey, New York, in addition to regular trips to town for shopping and phone calls, and trips to the library for Internet.
It was the experience of all our lives but too soon it was over and we were all left asking, ”Where to go now?“ All of us had our challenges to come back to, to use this experience and each other to move our lives and the lives of those around us forward in the best possible way. For me personally, I feel Ivy League has taught me so much, not only about Judaism, but about people and about life. Anytime I think back on anything Ivy League, I smile, and when I observe some precept of Judaism I learned there, there is an extra joy and relevance in it for me, and when I get correspondence from one of the guys, it makes my day, because it brings me back to that wonderful time learning Torah with them in the mountains. I would strongly recommend this experience to anyone seriously interested in exploring his Judaism while still staying in school or at work. It will help you to take Torah with you and find relevance and meaning in it in wherever you go and in whatever you do.
Oh, and the food was very abundant and very good!